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Students make history

March 27, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Special to The Herald-Mail

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- The day was about students teaching kids about history, specifically the story of abolitionist John Brown and his exploits in Harpers Ferry in 1859.

The "teachers" were Harpers Ferry Middle School students. On Friday, they were making videos of their own creations of historic videos at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The project, taking a page from Abraham Lincoln, is called "Of the Student, By the Student, For the Student." About 60 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders participated on six teams. They began researching their subjects in January and spent a day at the park in February.

They wrote the scripts, and directed and acted out six vignettes centering on Brown's raid and its effect on the town and history.

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The students also created 25 period costumes. Their final task will be to edit the videos they made Friday.

The finished videos will be integrated into a combined Virginia and West Virginia Civil War Commission meeting June 25 that will signal the official start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War beginning with Brown's raid through the surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, said Dennis Frye, chief historian for the park in Harpers Ferry.

"These videos will be a significant component of the meeting," Frye said. "The students have to get a very important story across in a very succinct message. It will focus on the raid, the raiders, the townspeople and their stories."

Catherine Brogaw, education program manager for the park, and Angela Stokes, director of education for the nonprofit Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership based in Charlottesville, Va., advised the students.

In one scene Friday, students dressed as townspeople were filmed tying handkerchiefs together to create a rope. They were preparing to lynch a raider hiding in a building. Once the rope was made, they rushed the door of a building seeking the raider.

Frye said emotions ran high among the townspeople after the raid. Lynch mobs were formed, but no raiders were hanged.

Brown's party consisted of himself and 21 raiders, Frye said. In all, 16 people, including town residents, raiders and a slave, were killed that night by Brown's men, by the military and by angry town residents.

One of the raiders killed Dangerfield Newby, a black man whose wife was a slave in Virginia. She had written to her husband asking to be rescued before she and her children could be sold.

The students selected Newby's story as a video subject.

One team focused on life as children in Harpers Ferry at the time of the raid. Brown's own two children were featured by another group.

Another team featured Meghan O'Neill, 12, who assumed the role of a pregnant slave who was badly beaten by her master. She wore a maternity dress and showed lipstick bruises on her face and arms, but braces on her teeth bespoke another era.

"The scene (of the beating) was so powerful that I cried," said Assunda Wight, one of O'Neill's middle school teachers.  

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